New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

16 May, 2017

Waiting for a new president

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s next President will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal choice, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party or, more importantly, its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, bungles badly.

Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term as President ends on July 24. The Election Commission will soon set in motion the process of choosing his successor shortly.

As constitutional head of state, the President is required to act on the advice of the council of ministers at all times. But at some critical junctures, as, for instance, when a new Prime Minister has to be inducted, the President has to act on his own.

The President is elected by an electoral college comprising elected members of the two houses of Parliament and of the Assemblies of the states and Union Territories.

The 776 MPs and 4,120 MLAs each command half of the electoral college votes. The value of an MP’s vote is 708 but that of MLAs varies from seven in Sikkim to 208 in Uttar Pradesh, as it is pegged to the state’s population.

In the early years of Independence, the Congress could get its nominee elected as President with a comfortable margin as it dominated Parliament and the State Assemblies. As it declined, and a fragmented national polity emerged, the Congress has to choose its candidate after wide consultations to ensure smooth election.

When the Janata Party, which was cobbled together to take on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, held sway at the Centre and in the northern states, it was able to get its nominee, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, elected as President. Eight years earlier Mrs Gandhi had blocked his election as the Congress candidate by switching her support to VV Giri who was contesting as an independent.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance which was in power at the Centre at the time of the 2002 election was in a hopeless minority in the electoral college. The BJP and the Congress both backed retired missile scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, and he became the President. 

The Congress and its United Progressive Alliance partners commanded only 33 per cent of the electoral college votes when it picked Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate in 2012. The NDA, which was close behind with a vote share of 28 per cent, fielded former Congressman and Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma. Mukherjee collected almost twice as many electoral college votes as Sangma, thanks to the support of a host of smaller parties.

Having won 282 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha in the 2014 poll and 312 seats in the 403-member UP Assembly in this year’s elections, the BJP is now way ahead of the Congress. With its NDA partners it commands about 47.5 per cent of the electoral votes valued at about 1.1 million.

But the non-BJP parties are in no mood to give up without a fight. Congress President Sonia Gandhi has been in talks with other opposition parties to pick a consensus candidate. Those under consideration include former Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Janata Dal (United) President Sharad Yadav and National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar.

Even if Shiv Sena, an NDA partner which revels in giving Modi occasional pinpricks refuses to back its nominee, as in the last two presidential elections, the BJP is in a position to cover the small shortfall in its electoral college majority with the help of regional parties.

Three southern parties, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (vote share about 5.5 per cent), YSR Congress (vote share about two per cent) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (vote share 1.5 per cent) and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal (vote share 3.5 per cent) are believed to be ready to go with Modi.

Some of them may want to know who the BJP’s candidate for the office is before committing themselves. Few expect Modi to favour party veterans Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi whom he has sidelined. Other names doing the rounds include those of three women, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Union Minister Uma Bharti and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu, who is an Adivasi.

In the last three years the RSS has tightened its grip on the BJP and placed its hard core leaders in constitutional positions in several states. It is, therefore, time to ask if the next President will be an organisation man from that outfit.

RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s name was proposed by Shiv Sena for the office of President. Oddly enough it was endorsed by a Muslim Congress leader from the south. Bhagwat said he was not interested in the post. That only means he prefers to be king-maker rather than the king.

One hopes Modi and Bhagwat do not lose sight of the fact that the President, who symbolises the majesty of the republic, needs to be a unifying figure. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 16, 2017.

09 May, 2017

A noble legal tradition in jeopardy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In an age of liberal thought a few enlightened judges charted out a new course which enabled India’s poor and marginalised people to surmount the obstacles that limited their access to the Judiciary. That age has passed and the noble tradition of public interest litigation which enhanced the quality of justice is in trouble.

The Constitution, proclaimed two and a half years after the country gained Independence, promised justice – social, economic and political – to all. It also guaranteed equality and equal opportunities, regardless of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Of what practical use was all that to the millions who had been denied basic human rights for centuries and lived in squalor?

On the face of it, the transition which took place on August 15, 1947, the day British colonial rule ended, and on January 26, 1950, the day India proclaimed itself a secular, democratic republic, was of a superficial nature. The new dispensation worked with the same bureaucrats, same policemen, same soldiers, the same judges who ran the colonial administration.

The judiciary was the institution farthest removed from the masses. While it enjoyed a reputation for fairness among the educated elite and the rising middle class, it was beyond the reach of the poor. The lower courts treated them with the same disdain as during the colonial-feudal period, and the higher courts were beyond their reach as the legal process was too costly and time-consuming. The juridical practice inherited from the colonial period allowed only persons with a sense of injury or personal hurt to seek remedy from the court.

In the 1970’s, a couple of judges of the apex court broke down the barrier and allowed concerned citizens or groups to raise issues on behalf of suffering citizens. Thus began a phase of access to justice through class action, public interest litigation (PIL) and representative proceedings.

Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer, a pioneer of PIL jurisprudence, outlined the philosophy behind the innovation in these words: “Little Indians in large numbers seeking remedies in courts through collective proceedings, instead of being driven to an expensive plurality of litigation, is an affirmation of participative justice in our democracy.”

When the apex court took up a PIL by Bandhua Mukti Morcha on behalf of bonded labourers, the government objected on the ground that it was an unregistered association. The court dismissed the argument and declared any person with no direct interest in the matter can champion the case of the downtrodden.

The court’s repeated intervention, coupled with legislative measures taken by the government, freed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly belonging to the Dalit and Adivasi communities, from generations of bondage. PIL was the instrument which made this possible.

By the 1980’s, the Supreme Court expanded the scope of PIL beyond the original intent of helping the poor to include broader issues of social concern like protection of the environment. Responding to pleas by environmental groups, it stepped in to prohibit mining operations and check pollution of waters by industries and of air by motor vehicles.

The 1990’s witnessed further expansion of PIL with judges allowing individuals or groups actuated by considerations of social good to raise issues of governance including corruption. Following the apex court’s example, high courts too began to entertain PILs.

Many foreign observers found the Indian judicial innovations praiseworthy. Zachary Holladay of the Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, who studied the working of PIL, said the Indian system could serve as a model for other developing countries in addressing the problems of marginalised and disadvantaged communities.

There were at all times conservative elements in the Indian judiciary who did not look upon PIL with favour, viewing it as judicial activism. From time to time they sounded notes of caution. Public interest litigants who approached courts without adequate preparations played into the hands of those who were looking for opportunities to discredit the system.

In the last few years both the Supreme Court and the high courts have come down heavily on several petitioners for misuse of PIL. In some cases they have fined petitioners and barred them from raising PIL in future.

Last week the apex court fined a trust and its chairman Rs2.5 million and barred them permanently from filing PIL. Over the past few years the trust had filed 64 PILs, all of which had failed.

Such punitive action can have a chilling effect on public interest litigants and throw the system into jeopardy. PIL has contributed most to the high reputation the Judiciary today enjoys as the people’s last resort. The court’s desire to free itself from the burden of frivolous petitions is understandable, but it should guard against throwing the baby with the bathwater.

02 May, 2017

Hindutva’s divisive preoccupations

BRP Bhaskar

As the Narendra Modi government heads for the fourth of its term of five years, its popularity is largely intact. However, the methods it employs to gain and retain electoral support remain problematical in view of the use of highly divisive tactics.

For a quarter century the Bharatiya Janata Party has been contesting parliamentary elections under the banner of National Democratic Alliance. Most of the NDA constituents share its Hindutva agenda but it also includes some which are committed to broader ideals but find it beneficial to be a BJP ally.

In the 2014 elections, the BJP secured an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha on its own, with only 31 per cent of the total votes polled. Thanks to the fragmented polity and the ‘first past the post’ principle that governs the electoral system, political parties have often secured a majority in the house with a minority of votes but never before did a party win enough seats to form the government with so small a vote share.

The credit for the BJP’s unprecedented electoral performance belongs to Modi, who vigorously campaigned all over the country and to the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the prime mover of the Hindutva ideology, who were deployed extensively at the booth level in several states.

Although the BJP had majority, Modi and the party decided to keep the NDA intact and continue to work under its banner. One partner, Shiv Sena, which was Hindutva’s chief instrument in the western state of Maharashtra for decades, has been needling the BJP from time to time but Modi and party president Amit Shah have ignored the pinpricks.

The RSS has brought the Central and state administrations under its influence since Modi took office. The central universities which enjoyed a reputation as centres of excellence and liberal thought were among the first to come under its radar. The RSS-affiliated student organisation queered the pitch for central intervention by provoking conflicts with the leaders of the elected students unions and progressive elements like Ambedkarite groups.

When the attempt invited strong criticism, Modi gave Smriti Irani, who was presiding over the Ministry of Human Resources, to a less important charge. However, efforts to effect changes have continued in a less obtrusive manner.

In states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP gained power after 2014, breaking with the tradition the party followed in the past, hard core RSS leaders were chosen to head the government. This indicated that the RSS was no longer content to remain in the background.

Emboldened by the emergence of the RSS as a major power centre, shadowy Hindutva outfits resorted to violent activities in many states, including those under non-BJP governments, during the last three years. People were lynched to death in the name of eating beef or killing cows. The police have not been able to restrain the unruly elements or pursue the cases against them vigorously.

In a situation like the one in which the BJP is now placed, a leadership with qualities of statesmanship would have striven to strengthen its credentials as the ruling party in a democracy by reaching out to people outside its fold, especially the minorities and the marginalised sections, and enhance its appeal to them. But the Hindutva mindset is too narrow to permit the party to move in that direction.

Instead, it appears, the RSS-BJP combine is working on a strategy which aims at enhancing its vote share by mobilising more support from the Hindu fold. There is, of course, room for the BJP to raise its share of Hindu votes as the Hindus constitute close to 80 per cent of the population. But this will require intensification of communal polarisation, which can have disastrous consequences.

Reports indicate that the Central government has plans to push the use of Hindi in the south as part of an attempt at promoting national integration. The move will strengthen the BJP’s position in the Hindi-speaking states but it may produce a backlash elsewhere, particularly in the Tamil Nadu state.

The Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu has a history of defeating attempts to impose Hindi. In the 1930s its followers foiled the move by a pre-Independence government to promote Hindi by invoking the spirit of nationalism fostered by the freedom movement. They rose against the imposition of Hindi again in the 1960s and the 1980s and are sure to do so again, if necessary.

Modi needs to recognise that Hindutva’s divisive preoccupations pose a threat to his development agenda.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 2, 2017